There is now a semi-living computer that uses AI to “smell” explosives

If the sound of super-smart robots scares you, what about the prospect of robots that can smell? No, they’re not designed to smell your fear, but they are designed to detect explosive residue to help uncover hidden bombs.

There is now a semi-living computer that uses AI to “smell” explosives

One researcher working on the project envisions it as a way to strip back visible security at airports, allowing for smoother passenger experiences when travelling abroad. The modem-sized device, known as the Koniku Kore, could then sit as a silent detector or work as part of a security robot’s brain.

Later in Koniku Kore’s life, the team plan to employ it in healthcare as a way to detect early signs of diseases through the power of smell. It’s a similar idea to how dogs can be used to detect cancer.

A prototype system was unveiled at the TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania, according to the BBC. Creating a computer capable of recognising smells is no easy task. AIs can crunch numbers and make statistical predictions far better than the human brain, but trying to decode smells would require more power than is currently feasible for a portable device. To make Koniku Kore work, its creator Oshi Agabi had to reverse-engineer how the human brain processes smell to make his computer work.

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“Biology is technology. Bio is tech,” Agabi explained during his presentation. “Or deep learning networks are all copying the brain.”

What’s more unnerving for robophobes is that Agabi’s creation is actually a semi-living device. To reduce the amount of power needed for a silicon-based computer to think, his company’s creation combines living neurons and silicon capable of detecting and recognising smells.

“You can give the neurons instructions about what to do – in our case, we tell it to provide a receptor that can detect explosives”.

Unfortunately, pictures of the device can’t yet be publicly revealed. But by managing to keep the neurons alive, Agabi has managed to overcome one of the biggest problems of building a biological system. He has lofty aims for the technology, too, expanding beyond the boundaries of simply smelling for explosives or illnesses.

“This device can live on a desk and we can keep them alive for a couple of months,” he told the BBC. “We think that the processing power that is going to run the robots of the future will be synthetic-biology-based and we are laying the foundations for that today.”

Agabi is far from the first person to try to meld biology and technology to create a new wave of computers. Elon Musk’s Neuralink project is quite possibly the most high-profile attempt, looking to meld AI with the human brain, but it’s projects like Agabi’s that help us come closer to our visions of human-like robots in the future.

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